Do marketers control what we see?

Do marketers control what we see? – use of market research in mass media industry

Denise Topolnicki

Do Marketers Control What We See?

When Paramount Pictures screened Fatal Attraction to preview audiences before its release, the gory tale of adultery gone awry ended with tigerish temptress Glenn Close slitting her throat to music from Madame Butterfly. The married object of her affection (Michael Douglas) is arrested for her murder but is freed after his long-suffering wife (Anne Archer) finds a cassette on which Close proclaims that life isn’t worth living without him.

Preview audiences didn’t think that suicide was punishment enough for the crazed Close, so a new ending was tacked on. In the final version, marriage triumphs bloodily over adultery, with the knife-wielding Close barging into the home of Douglas and Archer, only to be killed by them in self-defense. The studio’s marketing executives didn’t ditch the original ending altogether, however. Last fall it was released in Japan, the land of hara-kiri and kamikaze.

Fatal Attraction’s final cut at the behest of its intended audience was not unusual. Today virtually all movie and television producers, an increasing number of record companies and even a few book publishers employ sophisticated market-research techniques to test the appeal of creative endeavors that they call products.

The fact that much of what we see, hear and read is carefully tailored to mass tastes raises disturbing questions about how market research tests our culture. Says film critic andrew Sarris, “In the early days of Hollywood, the studio moguls wanted to make money, but they also respected culture and wanted to uplift their audiences whenever possible. Now, overeducated market researchers try to manipulate undereducated people with the sleaziest things they can find. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that any worthwhile film isn’t worth making.”

Market researchers are sensitive to such criticism and, as a result, many refuse to discuss their work. Those who do talk always insist that research is only a tool that artists are free to ignore. Yet today testing is so prevalent in Hollywood, where it began, that only a handful of moviemakers, such as Star Wars director George Lucas, are powerful enough to say no when studios suggest it.

Testing was used in Hollywood as early as the 1920s. According to Thomas Schatz’s new book, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era (Pantheon; $24.95), MGM boss Irving Thalberg had the Pacific Electric System cut a spur onto the studio’s lot in Culver City so a private trollery car could transport him and other executives to theaters in outlying Los Angeles suburbs where previews were shown. If Thalberg rode back to Culver City in silence, the film was destined for reediting or even reshooting.

But testing techniques have grown more sophisticated during the last decade because production budgets have ballooned and major corporations comfortable with consumer-product research have purchased studios. Says Arnie Fishman, chairman of Lieberman Research West, a Los Angeles firm that often tests movies, “When the average movie costs about $17 million to make and $6 million to market, studios see research as insurance.”

In these cautious times, even concepts for movies may be tested. Researchers find 200 to 500 members of a target audience, teenagers for instance, by cruising shopping malls or conducting telephone interviews in various cities. Respondents are asked to comment on a one-paragraph script synopsis.

More typically, research begins when an unfinished film is shown in a handful of theaters across the country to 300 or 400 guinea pigs who fit the demographic profile of the target audience. Researchers stop these people in malls or on busy street corners and find out if they would like to see the film by describing it or by showing them a mock-up of an advertisement. Researchers don’t want the opinions of the relatively rare person who sees only those movies “worth seeing.” Instead, says Greg Foster, Tri-Star Picture’s vice president of strategies and motion picture market research, “We look for avid moviegoers–who see at least two movies a month.”

After the show, the unpaid critics fill out two-page questionnaires that ask what they thought of the film’s characters, plot and pacing. In some cases, researchers ask a dozen people to expound on their views in a focus-group discussion. The procedure doesn’t sit well with director James Ivor (A Room with a View), who rarely subjects his films to formal previews and has never altered one in response to audience criticism. “Audiences may brutally critique a film to show their contempt for the stars, producers, directors and Hollywood media types they perceive as beautiful, rich and grand,” he says. “It makes them feel important and tends to frighten the people conducting market surveys.”

Indeed, negative comments sometimes send directors and stars scurrying back to the set. For example, preview audiences panned the grisly original ending of the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors because they couldn’t bear to see Audry II, the carnivorous plant, devour the lovably nerdy florist (Rick Moranis) or his girlfriend (Ellen Greene). The movie was reshot to end happily.

Some moviemakers employ audiences as editors. ASI Market Research of Burbank, CA, gauges audience interest with a technology that involves hand-held dials. During a screening, people turn their dials one direction if they are enthralled and another way if they are bored stiff. Their responses are instantly recorded by a computer. “It’s a terrific way to tweak [fine-tune] a movie,” says ASI Senior Vice President Paul Lenburg.

Perhaps, but there are obvious limitations to such a by-the-numbers approach. Author Tom Schatz, who is also director of graduate studies in radio, television and film at the University of Texas at Austin, notes that maket research “sees audiences in terms of demographic categories, which is a simplistic view. We have extremely complex reactions to film narratives, and everything can’t be reduced to numbers.” In other words, subtleties of plot and character tend to be regarded as commercially irrelevant by market researchers, particularly when the goal is merely to hit what media consultants call audience “hot buttons,” keeping viewers at a fever pitch of excitement. The result may be, as it has been in recent years, a slew of car-chase and adolescent-sex movies. As critic Sarris says, “Because films are geared to the lowest common denominator, what happened to network TV is happening to Hollywood: Grown-up, adult, intelligent people are going less often to the movies.”

Which brings us to the land of the sitcom and the miniseries. Television leans as heavily as Hollywood on market research, but preview audiences are rarely herded into theaters. Since the early 1970s, networks have instead broadcast shows to select viewers via unused cable channels. Researchers telephone these people immediately after the show is aired or a day later. In some cases, viewers who own VCRs receive videotapes of new shows.

Networks use test results to pare the 90 or so pilots they collectively consider each year. If viewers like a pilot, the producer or network may convene focus groups to finetune it. What an audience thinks of a program’s plot it generally of little importance. “Stories are easily fixed,” says David Mumford, senior vice president for research at Columbia Pictures Television. “I like to see high ratings for concept and characters.”

Testing doesn’t and once a show is aired. Networks conduct what they call “series maintenance” research to determine why once-popular shows flounder and to decide whether to risk plot twists or introduce new characters.

Nonetheless, and somewhat unexpectedly, Mumford is quite modest about the results of his mind sleuthing. Audiences, he says, “can tell you what they like and dislike but they can’t tell you what kind of show will be a hit. This business really still is ‘show biz,’ a creative medium, and lots of times pilots will get terrible ratings, but the show will get made anyway because somebody will say, ‘I just don’t believe these numbers.'”

What are the thousands of people Columbia interviews each year telling him? Curiously, viewers are most concerned about convenience. According to Mumford, they are angry that the networks shift shows around in the weekly schedule, that they show so many repeat episodes, and that the shows have become too predictable. But they don’t want more “challenging” fare; they want to have, in Mumford’s words, “leisure-time activity that is absent of discomfort.”

Perhaps inevitably, market research has spread from Hollywood to the pop-music business. Last winter PolyGram Records for the first time sent tapes of unreleased songs to randomly selected, active pop-music buyers aged 12 to 45. The results helped the company determine which songs it would release as singles, a practice that disturbs disc jockey Vin Scelsa, whose show on New York City’s WXRK-FM is one of the few free-format rock ‘n’ roll programs left on the airwaves. “Music has always been a form of expression, not a form of consensus,” he points out. “But nowadays I wonder if the impulse to create lies with an individual or with a computer printout that tells artiss what works they should be producing.”

Chrysalis Records turned the test of Jethro Tull’s Crest of a Knave album into a promotional event. Before the record was released in 1987, the company advertised for Tull fans on radio stations in 20 cities. Most who responded were longtime admirers over 30. They gathered in hotel suites, clubs or auditoriums, where they rated songs and told researchers the order in which they should appear on the album. The tune they identified as atypically boisterous for the band was the first single released because marketers wanted to attract younger listeners. The second single, which was more traditional, enticed old fans to buy the album. The calculated strategy paid off: The record sold more than 500,000 copies.

As in television land, research doesn’t end once a record is released. Radio stations conduct regular telephone surveys to determine whether new songs by unknown artists are popular enough to get airplay. Researchers make random phone calls in search of people who listen to stations that play a particular type of music. Those who fit the bill are asked to critique bits of 10 to 15 new songs played over the phone.

Compared to the movie, television and recording industries, market research in the book business is downright primitive. Odds are that publishers will never test each of their titles because it is too costly. Says Robert Carter, a contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, “Research doesn’t make sense in an industry that produces 50,000 new products a year.”

There are exceptions. Reader’s Digest tests the five to nine books it publishes each year on subjects such as home repair and the occult as thoroughly as a consumer-products company auditions a new detergent. Research is rarely that formal at other publishing houses, but marketers still have an important say in which manuscripts become books.

It is increasingly common for marketing executives to weigh in on editorial decisions, based on the sales history of books on similar subjects as well as an author’s promotional abilities. Indeed, some agents even send videotapes of their clients along with their book proposals. And bad prepublication reaction to a manuscripty by buyers for the big bookstore chains can torpedo a book’s release. Says Edward Morrow, president of the American Booksellers Association: “When two buyers control one quarter of the 8,000 bookstores, publishers want to make sure that it’s worthwhile for them to launch a marketing campaign for a speculative book, particularly one written by a new author whom they think they can make a star.”

Serious works of fiction and nonfiction are so far exempt from this practice. But then, who ever would have thought that rock ‘n’ roll, the music of the youth rebellion, would one day be test-marketed like TV dinners?

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group